McNally’s ‘It’s Only a Play’ packs loads of laughs but is more than a breezy comedy

it's only a play george street review

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

“It’s Only a Play” cast members: from left, Greg Cuellar, Kristine Nielsen, Mark Junek, Patrick Richwood, Doug Harris, Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Triney Sandoval.

It’s opening night of an eagerly awaited Broadway play, “The Golden Egg.” But all the real drama is going on at the post-show party in the producer’s townhouse. Or, more precisely, the townhouse’s spacious upstairs master bedroom, where the producer and the play’s director, playwright and leading lady, plus three other people, end up spending much of the evening.

From left, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Kristine Nielsen, Doug Harris and Patrick Richwood co-star in “It’s Only a Play.”

In this room, they let off steam, fret over the upcoming opening night reviews, field phone calls from agents and relatives, share secrets, fight, make up, fight some more, and try to make sense of their own crazy lives. New York’s glitterati are downstairs. But they — and we — remain upstairs.

Terrence McNally’s ingeniously funny “It’s Only a Play” takes place entirely in this room. George Street Playhouse presented a fine version of it as an online film, in June. But now that George Street is doing in-person productions again, it has chosen to present it live, on the stage of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, where it will be through Dec. 19. I highly recommend it.

Three of the seven actors are the same as in the online version, and Kevin Cahoon, who directed the film, is joined by a co-director, Colin Hanlon. Of the new faces, the one making the biggest impact is Tony nominee Kristine Nielsen, playing Virginia Noyes, an over-the-hill, scandal-suffering film star trying to reignite her career by starring in “The Golden Egg.” She is still being monitored by law enforcement, via ankle bracelet, and has to improvise when the bracelet “goes off” in the middle of the show.

Julie Halston was fine in the role in the film. But Nielsen’s Noyes is bolder and brassier. She underscores the character’s diva-like tendencies rather than her dissipation, and gets many of the evening’s biggest laughs.

From left, Patrick Richwood, Greg Cuellar and Kristine Nielsen in “It’s Only a Play.”

Other new faces are Lindsay Nicole Chambers as the well-meaning but somewhat dim producer Julia Budder; Patrick Richwood as the pretentious playwright Peter Austin; and Mark Junek as Peter’s friend James Wicker, who has left the world of the theater to become a successful TV star (gasp!) in Los Angeles.

“I do a lot of self-destructive things, but I draw the line at television,” mutters Virginia Noyes.

The three returning cast members are Greg Cuellar as acclaimed director and budding kleptomaniac Frank Finger; Triney Sandoval as the abrasive, self-satisfied critic Ira Drew; and Doug Harris as Gus P. Head, a naive aspiring actor hired to help out with the party.

As a kind of running joke, names of celebrities — everyone from Liza Minnelli to Ryan Seacrest, Hillary Clinton, Faye Dunaway, Tommy Tune and Steven Spielberg — are mentioned frequently, often with a catty comment coming next. “They put me behind Chris Christie; I could hardly see,” says Ira Drew of his seat at the play.

There are satirical and farcical elements in “It’s Only a Play”: The late McNally, who died last year from COVID-19 complications, had a lot to say about what is wrong with the theater and film industries. But it’s also, as McNally said in 2014 (when the play was produced on Broadway with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as James Wicker and Peter Austin, respectively), “a very big love letter” to the theater, and those who have devoted their lives to it.

To put it another way, “It’s Only a Play” shows how theatrical presentations can and do go wrong. But it also offers a vision of what theater can accomplish and why it’s necessary. And by the end, it’s quite moving.

George Street Playhouse’s “It’s Only a Play” will run at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 19. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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